Plans by Stoke-on-Trent City Council to reconfigure its museum service have prompted a backlash among the local community and museum sector.
A public consultation is underway on the budget proposals, which include the loss of around 19 full-time equivalent posts across the council’s two museums, the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and Gladstone Pottery Museum. The restructure is forecasted to bring savings of £560,000 and upwards a year over the next five years.
Under the plans, a single team would be created to work across both museums. A significant number of roles at the museum service would be deleted, including senior and assistant curator of ceramics, along with managers of operations, heritage, audience development and visitor services, as well as operations, visitor and tourist information assistants. Other posts would be reduced, including visitor services assistants, catering supervisor and visitor services officer.
The council is proposing to create 5.5 new roles: museums facilities manager; senior visitor experience assistant (plus casual posts); commercial officer; curator – contemporary collecting; and community engagement and partnership manager.
Both museums would also have their opening hours cut to five days a week, opening between Wednesday and Sunday. Gladstone Pottery Museum currently opens from Tuesday to Saturday, while the Potteries Museum opens seven days a week at present.
One of the most controversial aspects of the restructure is a proposal to close Gladstone Pottery Museum to the public between November and March. During this time, the museum would be used for “flagship TV broadcast production commitments”, as well as venue hire and other events and activities. Channel 4’s Great Pottery Throw Down is one of the TV shows filmed at the historic site.
The council’s consultation states: “Our heritage is important, but we are using this as a platform for further investment to provide a better cultural and commercial offering, leading to more opportunities for local people.”
There is significant local opposition to the proposals, with a petition against the cuts attracting more than 17,600 signatures so far.
The Friends of Gladstone Pottery Museum group has spoken out against the plans, saying: “It is possible that the wilful loss of expertise may affect the Designated status of the museum’s collections, particularly given the central importance of the museum’s unique ceramic holdings – the most significant collection of Staffordshire pottery in the world. This may also impact on the museum’s ability to attract grant funding.”
The group also described the contemporary collecting curator post as “unnecessary”, saying the activity already falls within the remit of existing curatorial posts.
In a statement, council leader Abi Brown rebutted earlier media reports about the restructure, saying: “It is simply not true that Gladstone Museum and Potteries Museum and Art Gallery are closing, nor that all staff have been sacked.
“Through our budget setting process, a consultation is underway on proposals that will support the required modernisation of the museums service. The proposal is to create a single team to work across both museums, building on the expertise and skills that are already in place.”
Brown added: “These proposals support the continued transformation of the city’s museum and wider cultural offer, enhancing our celebrated collections and exhibitions which attract local families and residents and international visitors to the city. If agreed, the proposals will allow us to offer a more flexible service to meet the ever-changing consumer and commercial use of museums within Stoke-on-Trent, while still recognising our custodial responsibility for our wonderful collections, through the continued application of curatorial expertise.”
Brown pointed to the emphasis that the council placed on culture and heritage in its City Prospectus. She said: “Our track record backs up that commitment, whether that is through regenerating our iconic town halls in Stoke, Tunstall and Longton and our successful bids for Heritage Action Zone status, to our applications to become City of Culture 2021 and as a Channel 4 regional centre, to name but a few.”
Brown continued: “The pandemic has changed the way people use our services like never before. We continue to invest in transforming the way we operate to meet the evolving demands of people in our city and it is appropriate that we do this. Demonstrating excellent stewardship is also about using our resources efficiently and these proposals will offer better value for money for the local tax payer.”